Gathering the Story
The Painted Drum
New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005, 276 pp., $25.95 hardcover
Reviewed by Trish Crapo
When I read Louise Erdrich's first novel, Love Medicine, twenty years ago, I wanted to run outside, shouting. I was astounded by how simply and beautifully Erdrich unpacked plot. Love Medicine opened a door and let a harsh North Dakota wind blow away narrative conventions--like chronology: who needed it? Erdrich moved freely among time periods, narrators, and storytelling styles, threading her way toward a unity that was felt, not explained. Instead of a traditional plot line, Love Medicine had plot ripples that spread from one chapter to the next, overlapping into a coherent pattern. Most chapters held together as perfectly crafted short stories--and over the years Erdrich has published book chapters as stories in The New Yorker and other places--and yet, each managed to contribute to the effect of the whole in a way that made them feel inseparable. Erdrich's work could be described as symphonic, each "movement"Â setting off echoes that carry into others: repeated images, words, even colors creating recognizable motifs within the complex parts. But in case "symphonic"Â gives the impression that her work is too abstract for the average reader, let me say that Erdrich can write a bar scene, a house fire, a funny conversation, or a grisly death as skillfully as she can spin a gorgeous lyric or spiritual passage.
Erdrich published nine novels after Love Medicine, and while each was valuable because of the extended world it helped to create--all of Erdrich's novels are linked by common history and characters--they varied in power. I read them all loyally and forgave Erdrich when she didn't completely satisfy me. But The Painted Drum, published in fall of 2005, is another astonishing novel. I had to keep putting it down to give myself time to absorb the elation of being so solidly back in Erdrich's world.
In this world, time is fluid. Concepts proposed by others as opposites--past and present, joy and sorrow, faith and science--are melded back into their original, uncomfortable wholes. The dead exist alongside the living, offering advice, if the living would only listen. Ancestral stories merge with modern ones. Characters who know nothing about themselves, their own hearts, or their heritage find themselves completing tasks begun long ago by others in their families. When an estate appraiser named Faye Travers, part Ojibwe on her mother's side, finds a large painted drum among the belongings of a white New Hampshire man, she knows she has to take it, though she doesn't yet know why:
I set my hand on the drum and then I feel, pulled through me like a nerve, a clear conviction. It is visceral. Not a thought but a gut instinct. I cover the drum again with the quilt and go downstairs to make sure that Sarah is really gone....For a person who has not stolen so much as a candy bar in all her life to walk coolly out of a client's house with such a valuable object might signal insanity. The beginning of a nervous breakdown. But I don't feel that way. I feel quite lucid.
I did, too. I knew that Faye was responding to a deeper sense of "right"Â and that the drum would tell her what to do. Early in the book Faye says, "All I have are other people's lives."Â She's referring to her work but the truth expands into her personal life as well. Faye is 35 and lives with her mother; she is comfortable in work and home routines that mute the secrets they both keep and bind them together without demanding much of either of them. Faye is afraid to give herself fully to her lover, Kurt Krahe, a sculptor, and afraid to be swallowed by his grief at the death of his teenaged daughter, Kendra. By living only on the surface of her life, Faye has learned to protect herself. But when she chooses to participate in the story of the drum, she sets in motion a series of events that link her both to the North Dakota Ojibwe reservation her ancestor left generations ago and to herself.
Faye keeps the drum all summer, during which it "exerts the most connective hold on me, and it even starts to influence my dreams."Â Through Faye's dreams, we learn of her only sister, who died in childhood, finally gaining the details of this loss that has been hinted at since the first page, which begins in a child cemetery. We learn also of her father, a difficult, disheartened man who spent his time "endlessly reworking his thesis on Miguel de Unamuno into a book on faith and science." "The mind is a wolf,"Â Faye's father was fond of saying, a phrase that reverberates in many ways as the story progresses. In early fall, Faye and her mother deliver the drum to North Dakota, and the narration switches to Bernard Shaawano. Grandson of Old Shaawano, the drum's maker, Bernard is the only one left on the reservation who knows the drum's story and the old songs connected to it. The narration alternates between Bernard's wry, contemporary voice and the more traditional voice he adopts when telling the old stories ("Ahau! said the old men. It happened this way."Â) From Bernard, we learn of the sorrows that made it necessary for his grandfather to make the drum. We learn the drum's purpose: "Letting those sorrows out, into the open, where the songs could bear them away."
In keeping with Native American oral tradition, the story of the drum includes not only the specific events that led to its creation but also practical instructions: how to find the cypress logs that had been stored over the years specifically for the drum's creation, how to care for such sacred logs, how to burn sections of their trunks with hot stones to create the body of the drum, how the drum's decorations were conceived and what they signify. The story of the drum also includes advice on spiritual matters, such as how to pray and how to overcome grief. But for Erdrich, a story is a not just a conduit for information and advice; it is also a living power. Once a story is set in motion it works toward its resolution, with its own will.
Describing two women who begin to bead a dance outfit for a man they both love, Erdrich writes:
Sometimes they ran out of thread and continued to sew...with their own hair. It was only from necessity that they did this. They did not mean to bind him to them in an evil way....They were only caught in what the story did to them. The story Simon Jack had set in motion.
The story Simon Jack set in motion is the story of the drum, and when Erdich's narration leaves one set of characters for another, it's not a diversion but a necessary movement, a drawing in of other important threads in the tale. The overall sense as the book progresses is one of gathering. When the tale of Bernard's grandfather closes and a new chapter begins with three modern-day children we haven't met before, left alone in an unheated house, sucking on paint chips because they have already eaten the toothpaste, it is clear that they are about to become part of the story of the drum. What happens to nine-year-old Shawnee and her younger sister and brother and to their mother, drinking in a bar as her children struggle with cold and hunger, forms the conclusion to the book. It draws together strands of personal and tribal history enacted by a diverse collection of characters who, even when they behave in ways we wish they wouldn't, are always whole people, worthy of respect.
The Painted Drum is a story of sorrow, love, risk, empowerment, and survival. It unquestioningly blends the supernatural with the everyday, as Shawnee taps into a generations-old power that helps young girls exert influence over their lives. The magic of the drum, steeped in the Ojibwe tradition, is believable today largely because Erdrich is so good at grounding us in the present. Kids on their way to the school bus wearing "puffy jackets of saturated brilliance--hot pink, hot yellow, hot blue"Â; Kurt's teenaged daughter Kendra, "biting black paint from her nails"Â; pot-growing Indian wannabe Kit Tatro creeping through the New Hampshire woods in a new, fringed suede jacket; Morris, a Gulf War veteran who listens to 12th century philosophy on tape: we recognize these as people who inhabit the same world we do. However, in Erdrich's world, unlike my own, Ojibwe tradition and everyday life dovetail--as when Faye smokes a cigarette with the mother of a young man killed in an auto accident, inadvertently sharing tobacco in the old way. This is how a fictional world is made real: detail by sweet or gritty detail. The Painted Drum resonates powerfully in Erdrich's body of work, expanding on themes and concerns from earlier novels, deepening our understanding of characters we have met before, introducing new ones and filling out the lore of a world that has come to seem as real to me as the one I am writing from now.
TRISH CRAPO is a freelance writer and editor living in Leyden, MA. Her poems have appeared in anthologies and journals, most recently Southern Poetry Review. Her chapbook of poems, Walk through Paradise Backward, was published by the Slate Roof Publishing Collective (Northfield, MA) in November 2004. She is writing a novel.